ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- In the aftermath of Jose Fernandez’s death this weekend, his legacy seems to have emerged as a single word: joy.
He played the game with unbridled amounts of it, brought it to anyone who watched him perform and made it his mission to inject it into his relationships.
For Aledmys Diaz, the late pitcher’s childhood friend, joy defined Fernandez.
“He’s just a reminder to have fun. He loved the game, he loved to compete. I think that’s the thing he asked baseball players and friends,” Diaz said. “Everybody loved him. The way he played the game and the way he was in the clubhouse.”
Before Tuesday night Diaz hadn’t touched a diamond since Fernandez’s death. He was given the day off Sunday, then flew to Miami for a service of close family and friends Monday afternoon. He rejoined the team late that night.
Everyone handles grief differently, and the Cardinals wanted to give the rookie space if he needed it. But for MLB players, there’s life, death and baseball. Sometimes baseball is all you want when death has made life painful.
“I could tell he was anxious. That was one of the first things he told me,” Mike Matheny said. “I was kind of following his lead with what it was that he needed. What was the best thing we could do for him? His response was he just wanted to go out and play the game with great joy. That would be the best way he could honor his friend.”
So Diaz returned to the lineup Tuesday, having said before the game he would dedicate his performance to Fernandez’s family. In the dugout, a number 16 Cardinals jersey with Fernandez’s name on it was taped to the wall behind the bench. Diaz carried the memory of his friend with him into the game; the joy with which he lived and the pain his passing caused. He carried it into the batter’s box in the fourth inning, when the bases were loaded and the Cardinals were trailing by one.
“I know how much this game meant for him. He was waiting for this opportunity. He was very excited about playing today and then, you know when he got that jersey and he put that jersey on the bench, he was feeling something special was going to happen,” said catcher Brayan Pena, a fellow native Cuban.
As Diaz stepped in, Busch Stadium began to buzz. Fans began to shift in their seats in anticipation, some rising like hairs on your arm before lightning strikes. Baseball had provided a storybook moment. All it needed was a happy ending. On the fourth pitch, Diaz penned it.
“I felt some serious goosebumps when he hit that,” starter Adam Wainwright said.
The 25-year-old twisted his frame and sent a ball soaring into the night air, its velocity seemingly increased by the exultant roar of the assembled crowd. By the time it landed in the left field seats, the sound was deafening. His first career grand slam.
As Diaz got back to the dugout, the tears started.
“Watching him cross the plate and watching his reaction as he went through the guys really hit me in how much that meant to him and the load he’s carrying right now,” Mike Matheny said.
The rookie went into the tunnel to collect himself, returning when the non-stop ovation beckoned him to the top step of the dugout. He tipped his helmet, and raised it as he looked skyward.
“I didn’t see a smile or anything of relief. It looked like he just had a purpose. He was doing something with a purpose,” Matheny said. “You could tell his mind was somewhere else. But in a good place.”
“It means a lot for me. I did that for his family. They’ve been through a lot of things the last couple days and hopefully this helps a little bit,” Diaz said, describing Fernandez as being like a brother. “I think he’s watching. I think he’s gone too soon, and hopefully he was helping today and can stay with everybody who loved him.”
While the moment floored the rookie, at least one person saw it coming. Pena, ever the optimist, sensed something special was on the horizon Tuesday.
“I told him. I said, ‘Dude, you’re going to hit a homer today.’ Obviously I didn’t know it was going to be a grand slam,” Pena said. “Then he hit that ground ball to shortstop (in his first at bat) and I told him, ‘You have three more at bats. Trust me, you’re going to hit a homer today.’”
In addition to providing catharsis for Diaz, the homer put Cardinals ahead for good in a game they desperately needed to win. In the wake of Monday’s 15-2 drubbing, Tuesday’s 12-5 victory was reassurance the team won’t collapse in the final leg of the race.
“I don’t know if there has been a spot all year where we needed that more than we did tonight,” Wainwright said.
The Cardinals remain one game back of the Giants with five games to play. They will need all the help they can get to close the gap over the rest of the week, but for 24 hours, Busch Stadium is a happy place. For Diaz, baseball made life easier, and gave him some peace in dealing with death.
“I think right now and going forward, every time I put on the uniform I want to think of him. The way he played baseball. He gave everything every day and that’s his legacy for every MLB player. Especially for the Cuban players, he was living the American Dream, you know? He made it,” he said. “I think I look at life different right now. Sometimes we just take [things] for granted. You never know when your last time, your last opportunity is to come and play. So every time I put on the I’ll uniform think of that.”